TAMPA — There’s nothing wrong with dreaming big. But sometimes it can backfire on you.
Organizers of the citywide National Day of Prayer event at Steinbrenner Field found that out the hard way two years ago, when they predicted some 8,000 people would show up at their inaugural gathering.
Intermittent rain and a sparse turnout of about 2,000 put a damper on a much-hyped program that included speakers, dance teams and praise and worship.
Last year, they tried again to fill the stadium, this time bringing in international evangelist Reinhard Bonnke, known for his missionary work in Africa. He reportedly has preached to more than 120 million worldwide; at the Tampa event, only 4,300 showed up.
Members of the local task force aren’t giving up.
They’ll be back again at Steinbrenner Field on Thursday, the 63rd anniversary of the National Day of Prayer.
This time, local organizers aren’t projecting attendance figures or booking big-name speakers.
They are keeping it a grass-roots movement and, well, praying that Christians will come together for an event that will feature music, prayer and dance.
“I can understand how the nonbelieving community wonders: Is the church still alive? So we want this to be a visual love letter to them, to show how we care and how we relate to God,” says Jennifer Mallan, co-founder of Christian Family Church in Tampa and a member of the National Day of Prayer-Tampa task force. “We’re just asking that people take two hours out of their busy day to come out in a unified show of prayer.”
So far, the signs are hopeful that the 2014 version will draw more support.
On Thursday, the task force hosted a pastors’ breakfast at The Italian Club in Ybor City. More than 100 clergy — representing a cross-section of cultures and denominations — attended the meal, pledging to mobilize their congregants to support the prayer-day festivities.
Mallan says that was the largest turnout and commitment they’ve had since launching the annual program.
“I know all about pastors having unscheduled time. Members get sick, they die or they need emergency counseling. So many end up telling us, ‘Don’t give us one more thing on our plates.’ So seeing this response is encouraging,” Mallan says.
In addition, the task force is spending $40,000 — half of which already has been raised — to promote the event across several platforms and rent the stadium and sound equipment.
Free tickets for the event can be downloaded at the group’s website, www.ndptampa.org.
Also for the third year, organizers are leading a 24/7 Bible Read-A-Thon by the steps of Tampa City Hall, 306 Jackson St., starting at 6 p.m. today. Volunteers will take half-hour shifts through 11 a.m. Thursday. With the conclusion of the reading, there will be a “Worship Over Tampa” gathering with song and prayer from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in nearby Lykes Gaslight Square Park, 410 N. Franklin St., to promote the 7 p.m. event at the stadium.
Tim Bonzelaar, who works with Somebody Cares Tampa Bay, and his wife, Theresa, are coordinating the Bible-reading marathon. It has become so popular that most of the prayer slots are full.
“It’s meant to give a public voice to the word of God and to comfort people who hear it,” he says. “But what we’ve found is that the people reading it get just as much out of it. The more they get into the word, the more it becomes a personal experience.”
The task force had to obtain city permits in order to set up their operations at both city hall and the park. Bonzelaar says they rarely hear from protesters.
“An occasional person passing by might yell something out at us, but that’s the exception,” he says. “I do know that we’ve prayed with a lot of transient folks who come by. We try to give them some hope, though it seems they are in a hopeless situation.”
Last year, the weather took a nasty turn with driving rain and high winds. That didn’t deter the volunteers, who kept on reading the Scriptures day and night.
“We just batten down the hatches when the weather doesn’t cooperate,” he says. “We’re on a mission, rain or shine, to get outside the four walls of the church and make God’s presence known.”